A chamber of mirrors - reflective, just like talking to yourself can be!

Talking to yourself: tap your inner voice to be a canny language learner

Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, some say. But it’s actually the hallmark of the very canny linguist, too.

Ask most experienced language learners, and they will tell you that the secret is speaking, speaking, speaking. But it’s easy to overlook how useful speaking can be, even when you don’t have a partner. When it comes to talking to yourself, something is most definitely better than nothing.

So don’t be shy (of yourself!). Here are some strategies and key reasons for talking to yourself in the target language.

Mine for missing vocab

When you are actively learning a language, you should be mining for vocabulary all the time. The problem is knowing which vocabulary will be most useful to you. Where should you spend your mining efforts? Well, talking to yourself is a good way to find out.

Try this exercise to start identifying missing words in your mental dictionary. First, set yourself anywhere between one to five minutes with a timer, depending on your level. Use that time to chatter aloud about your job, your day, or some other common topic in the target language. You will almost certainly stumble across thing you lack the words for, but want to say. Don’t worry – just make a note of that missing vocab in your native language. At the end of the five minutes, you should have a list of a few items to look up and add to your vocab lists.

Record, play back and perfect

Time spent talking to yourself is a resource you can maximise the value of by recording it. Set yourself timed challenges to chat about a particular topic whilst recording on your phone or computer. This topic-o-matic I created as a help for my own speaking may be useful if you are struggling for themes.

The resulting recording can be handy in many ways, including:

  • Checking your accent : Listen out for sounds you could improve. But equally, be proud of yourself by noting when you sound particularly authentic!
  • Revision : Build up a library of recordings on your phone, and play them back regularly in order to revisit and consolidate your topic-based material. (Note that this can be amazingly effective for other subjects too – I successfully revised for my Social Sciences degree by recording notes in my own voice and listening back to them regularly on the bus!)

As you grow more confident, you can go a step beyond simple voice recording, and try video. Practise in front of a mirror first, having a bit of fun with facial expressions, gestures and voice. Language is a performance!

If you are really brave, and feel your videos might help other learners, perhaps even consider sharing them on YouTube. There are many linguists who vlog their progress for all to see – just search YouTube for ‘How I learnt X‘ and you get a whole raft of sharers!

Talking to yourself before talking to others

Talking to yourself is an excellent rehearsal method before real-life language encounters, too. For example, I attend a lot of one-to-one iTalki classes on Skype. They invariably involve some general conversation to warm up the lesson. And that always goes better when I have warmed up a little beforehand by running through, out loud, what I’ve done in my life since the last time I met the teacher.

Make auto-chatting a regular part of your pre-lesson warm-up techniques, and you will notice the difference.

Run through the basics

Speaking alone offers a good opportunity to run through the basics, too. You are unlikely to find a teacher or speaking partner who will relish listening to you recite numbers, days of the week and months, for example.

Instead, you can try working some of this repetitive speaking into your daily routine. Number practice, for example, pairs up brilliantly if you attend a gym and like the cardio machines. Likewise, you can quietly recite sequential vocab to the rhythm of your feet as you walk along the street. And, like working out, getting your mouth around these very common words may help build up a certain muscle memory for speaking your new language.

Inhibition-busting

Successful language learning involves breaking down many inhibitions at lots of points on the way to fluency. Just think of that end goal – communicating with strangers – and you realise that it requires a lot of self-confidence.

Talking to yourself is a good intermediary step on the way. For one thing, it is something that doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It also reminds us that a key outcome of language learning is getting those words out there, into the world, through speech.

The greatest thing is that you can be silly about it. It’s a safe testing ground to try out all sorts of language. Next time you shower, give a thankful awards acceptance speech in French. Reel off a victory speech on becoming German Kanzler. Explain the secrets of your phenomenal success in Spanish. Be larger than life, and have fun with it!

Talking to yourself in mindful moments

Once a week I go for a one-to-one session in the local park with my trainer. I like to go as unencumbered as possible, so I leave my phone at home. That simple act frees my mind up completely, as it would otherwise be occupied by checking texts, emails, doing my Anki cards or – something I hate in others, but still do myself – idly browsing whilst walking.

Instead, I have some mindful moments to walk, connect to the world around me, and talk to myself! OK, so maybe not out loud (all the time) when I’m on the street. But it’s a good ten to fifteen minutes when I can just prattle in the target language, at least in my head.

Even in the early days of learning, before the sentences flow, there are things you can do. Try naming the objects you see on a journey (another lovely mindfulness-inspired exercise that helps you to notice the world around you). Did you see something intriguing or beautiful, but didn’t know the word for it? Make a mental note and look it up for your vocab lists later.

Fake it ’til you make it

However, if you do have your phone on you, it can be the ultimate talk-to-yourself prop. Feeling brave? Then why not walk down the street, pretending to have a conversation in the target language with an imaginary interlocutor?

To the naturally shy (like, believe it or not, me), or generally faint-hearted, this may seem like an utterly crazy idea at first. 😅 Pretending to have a conversation on your mobile? In public? Who even does that?!

But, like talking to yourself in general, there is method in the madness. It is a fantastic way to get used to speaking your target language in front of unknown others. If it feels too odd at first, a word of advice: you’ll sound less silly if you really try to sound authentic, rather than speaking in your native accent. Try to be convincing – it’s easier than it sounds, as most passers-by won’t have a clue what you are talking about…

Speaking, speaking, speaking

The ideas above represent just a few of the ways self-talking techniques can boost your learning. Try talking to yourself – it’s free, easy, and could be the perfect halfway house on the way to real-world, person-to-person fluency.

The next time you pass somebody muttering to themselves, try not to think they are insane. Like you, they might be learning a language! 

A forest of trees - a good analogy for the trees and branches of closely related languages

Studying closely related languages can be a help, not a hindrance

Studying two or more languages can be a challenging undertaking. But when they are closely related languages, instinct suggests that the similarity could be a source of confusion. “Don’t you ever get mixed up?” people ask. And, truthfully, from personal experience, you do. Particularly in the early stages.

But then again, so do bilingual children, as a completely normal part of learning two languages at home. And they go on to develop perfectly separate, fully-functioning bubbles of language as adults. Human beings are well-equipped to learn similar – but different – skills without one collapsing into the other. The mixed-up myth has long been burst for bilinguals.

In fact, a focus on close language pairs can be a blessing in many ways, rather than a curse. Whether it’s Polish and Russian, French and Spanish, Norwegian and Icelandic, or some other mix, there are plenty of reasons not to worry!

Highlighting gaps

One language can support the other by throwing light on gaps in your vocabulary. For instance, if you’re constantly saying a word in language X when you try to speak language Y, it’s quite likely that it’s missing in the second language for you. If it’s not missing, at the very least, it needs a bit of reinforcing.

This happened constantly in Polish for me – I’d reach for ‘unfortunately’, and only the Russian к сожалению would come out. It didn’t take long to reach for an online dictionary and learn the Polish (niestety) instead.

It’s helpful to test yourself on these gaps when you review vocabulary in one language. Interrogate yourself when you look up words or recall items. – So, Spanish for goat is la cabra… Do I know what that is in French, too? Perhaps even keep a bilingual vocabulary list in Excel, or your best Moleskine. This way, your stronger language can become the yardstick for the weaker one. “I can say this in language X – but can I say it in language Y too?”

Familiar grammar

Closely related languages usually share a great overlap in grammar principles. As a most basic example, knowing that French has masculine and feminine nouns also sets you up nicely for Spanish.

Similarities continue as the level gets more complex. For example, there is a fair stretch of common ground when it comes to using the subjunctive in French and Spanish. Learn one, and you have a head start on the other. At the very least, there will be fewer nasty surprises.

Deep understanding – a historical perspective

Knowing how related languages changed in different ways from a ‘parent’ language can also be an invaluable crutch for learning. Through an understanding of how particular sounds developed across different languages, you can often guess at the meaning of new words.

The Germanic sound shifts are a good example. If you can see that /p/ in English and Dutch often developed as /f/ in German, then you can make a better guess at what AffePfeffer and tief mean*.

This kind of cross-history view helps foster a really deep understanding of a language. Rather than just answering what and how, it starts to provide answers for why languages are a certain way. That’s certainly a step beyond basic holiday French / German / Spanish!

More than just language

This naturally leads to the notion that language is so much more than just words. The language you are learning is embedded in a social context, which has similarly developed on the historical axis. If you explore backwards far enough in your related languages, you can follow their twists and turns along important cultural and political shifts. Getting to know these ‘pivot points’ in the shared history of two languages can be a wonderful source of insight into the context behind the language.

For example, one ‘standard’ variety of written Norwegian – bokmål – is extremely similar to Danish. The other ‘official’ variety of Norwegian, nynorsk, preserves a more archaic feel, its vocabulary just a little reminiscent of highly conservative Icelandic. Understanding why, and delving deeper into the conflicts between Norway’s standard languages, rewards the learner with a much richer understanding of geopolitical history.

Whatever your reasons, don’t worry too much about taking on related languages. Laugh at the mix-ups and brush off the bumps in the road – the pay-off in extra learning is more than worth it in the end.

*They are monkey (ape), pepper and deep.

Coloured Pencils

Five sure-fire ways to warm up for language lessons

To get the most from any lesson, a good warm up always helps. That goes as much for one-to-one iTalki sessions, as it does for classroom learning. Prime your brain correctly, and it will be in just the right place to process new information.

For iTalki students, the stakes are even higher for getting the most from your lessons this month. The language learning site is holding its language challenge throughout February, encouraging students to go the extra mile with tuition hours. The leaderboard is alight with eager students, some boasting a mind-boggling number of lessons taken in these first few days.

If it demonstrates one thing, it’s that there are plenty of linguists that have the language bug even worse than I do. But all those extra lessons mean money invested in learning. And that makes it even more important to get the most from your investment.

So that our learning hours aren’t wasted, here are five very easily overlooked ways to warm up before a lesson.

1. Podcast listening

Even if you don’t understand 100%, filling your sound space with the target language is a good way to prime your subconscious for speaking it. If you’re busy, you don’t even have to focus fully; just have podcasts playing aloud for 30-60 minutes before the lesson, and you can tune in and out.

German has a good word for what this achieves: einhören, or the process of ‘listening into’ a language, or getting used to it. It’s an almost effortless way to get ready for your language lesson.

2. Anki flashcards

Just before your lesson is a great time to recycle and revise previous vocabulary. If Anki is a part of your language learning regime, you will probably have a bank of vocabulary cards at your disposal. If not, you can download it for free from this link. There are also lots of shared decks you can start with if you don’t have your own vocabulary bank ready yet.

But the principle goes for all your other vocabulary, too. If you keep written vocab records, leaf through them and test yourself before you start. The same goes for any other language app you regularly use; doing a little Duolingo or Memrise right before your lesson can work wonders. It’s an excellent way to give your memory a gentle shake, and bring to the top relevant material for your lesson.

3. What have you done today…

…to make you feel proud? And the rest. Beyond the most basic level of language learning (ie., A1 in the European Framework), it’s likely you’ll have some general conversation at the start of a session. Don’t let questions about your day / week catch you out – be prepared to have something to say.

It need only take a few minutes. Start by writing some brief bullet points on the main events of the week, in the target language if possible. Briefly look up key words you don’t know. It will save you a lot of umms and aahs in the lesson.

4. Warm up to Music

Songs – particularly pop songs – are great warm up tools for a number of reasons. Firstly, they have repeated refrains, which means that you can quickly pick them up and sing along. And that warms up not only the brain, but your mouth muscles. Different languages have distinctive patterns of physical speech production, and singing along will literally get your mouth in gear.

Also, like podcasts, they surround you in a blanket of target language. You can enjoy them in the background in a few minutes before your lesson, while they quietly prime the mind for listening.

Not only that, but they’re usually very short – the three-minute pop song is an industry benchmark – so you can listen to as few or as many as you have time for.

5. Relax

One of the easiest things to forget is simply to chill. It’s normal to feel a little nervous before one-to-one lessons, especially if you’re Skyping with a stranger for a first lesson.

Sit down comfortably, have a glass of water ready and enjoy a few deep breaths before starting. Let go of the tension and be open to learning – a stressed brain is not an efficient one.

Warm up to language lesson success

Some of these are common sense tips to warm up the language learner’s brain. But all of them fall into the category of ‘easily overlooked’. It’s far too easy to say that you haven’t enough time to do them before a lesson on a busy day. But they mostly take just minutes, or can even occur in the background while you do other things.

Work some of these into your routine, and go into your lesson with a primed, ready brain.

Like climbing a mountain, making the most of your language lesson involves preparation!

Acing preparation for a good one-to-one language lesson

I’ve attempted Icelandic a few times in my life. That sounds ominous, that ‘attempted’, doesn’t it? Well, the truth is that I’ve found the language a real challenge each time. I’ve usually learnt it in the lead-up to a trip, then put it to bed for a while after my return. But last year, I decided to collect together the fragments of multiple start-stops and have a proper go at learning it upp á nýtt (back from scratch). 🇮🇸

Now, Icelandic is still extremely challenging to learn. I’d put it on a par with Russian for grammatical complexity, with the added downside that there is very little commercial material for learning the language. And I am far from the perfect student, squeezing my learning in here and there – and, perhaps ill-advisedly, learning several other languages at the same time.

However, over these past few weeks, I feel I’ve turned a corner. This week in particular, I had a one-to-one conversational Icelandic lesson on iTalki. And guess what? It actually went quite well! I’m not fluent by a huge stretch. But I stumbled, faltered and ummed and aahed just a little bit less. For the first time in forever, I feel I can actually speak Icelandic (after a fashion!), and not just rattle off phrases, parrot-style.

In this post I’ll look at how good preparation helped me to get the most from that lesson. I’ll also consider how that preparation could have been better, to squeeze even more out of my hour of speaking time.

Getting started

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I like to sketch out a few broad topic areas with rough vocabulary notes before a lesson. These topics are generally things I’ve been up to since the last session: travel, work, family / friends news and so on. For this lesson, I chose three: commuting to London, booking a trip to Iceland, and how I’d been practising Icelandic in the meantime (finding interesting articles online to translate).

I try to stick to a few rules in these pre-lesson notes. For example, complete sentences are out. Instead, I’ll write out vocab items and partial phrases, avoiding the temptation to create a script to read from. The aim is spontaneous(-ish!) conversation and flexibility as a speaker, rather than rote production of phrases. (Sidenote: there is definitely a place for the latter, especially in the very first stages of learning – Benny Lewis in particular has produced some brilliant guidelines on using scripts as a complete beginner.)

Sample preparation sheet

Here’s my prep sheet for this week’s lesson (complete with notes I scribbled during the lesson itself!). I typed it up in Evernote, then printed it to scribble on during the lesson. (Fellow Icelandic learners, please don’t use this as a learning resource yourself, as there are bound to be errors in it! It is really just my personal, rough scaffold for chatting, warts and all.)

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Because I already have a basic level in the language, the notes are slightly more complex or specific words and phrases to fit around that. In some cases it is brand new material, like “eins mikið og hægt er” (‘as much as possible’). I try extra hard to fit these in, as I’m more likely to memorise them through active usage. Other items include conversation cues, or main points of a story I want to tell. These simply keep me speaking and prevent the conversation from drying up.

This approach works a treat for me. It gives the start of the lesson a focus, so we can get right into it. It also provides the teacher with a lot of student-produced language – perfect for getting your grammar tweaked and vocab suggestions thrown your way.

Room for improvement

Of course, nothing is perfect. One shortfall was my lack of subject material. I’d managed to prepare three general “things I’ve been up to” sections, but started to struggle for novelty after 20-25 minutes, repeating myself a little. That wasn’t a problem, as there are always alternative activities to do in a lesson. But perhaps five or six rough prepared subjects to chat about would have bridged the gap.

Also, what you can probably tell from my notes is that I don’t always follow my own advice about brevity. Some of my lines are almost sentences. Not only that, but they tend to read in a slightly linear way. Like a script, an order is implied: I did A, then I did B, then C happened, then D will happen. I didn’t leave myself much room for improvisation.

Now, I wasn’t robotically reeling of those sentences in that exact order. But in future, I could make them even more efficient. As they are, they’re a little more fixed and restrictive than I’d like them to be. As a Social Sciences student, I found Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping techniques a fantastic support in note-taking; I think they’d work a treat in this scenario, too.

More than just the lesson

Lastly, what I haven’t mentioned above is all the other prep you do between lessons. The one-to-one hours are just single, brief points in your language learning schedule. Between lessons, you have to make a success of self-directed, wider learning, too. As I mentioned above (and in my chat notes!), I’d been a good student that week. I’d actively vocab-mined and exposed myself to lots of Icelandic in use by seeking out and translating online articles. (Nothing high-brow, mind – most of them were about the twists and turns in Iceland’s journey to pick a Eurovision song!)

No lesson is perfect (since no student is!), but I enjoyed this one and got a lot from it. Not every lesson goes so well, of course. Time is the biggest constraint on prep, and I’ve lost count of the occasions I wish I’d spent more of it on getting ready. Without exception, the better prepared you are to use language actively in a one-to-one, the more rewarding it is.

Headphones and an internet-connected device - all you need to start chatting on iTalki

Justifying iTalki : bumper bang for your language learning buck

I’ve been spending a fortune on iTalki recently. This very popular website is a kind of language teacher directory service, where students can browse and contact hundreds of experts for one-to-one lessons on Skype. I learnt about the service some time ago from Benny Lewis’ site fluentin3months.com, and have since found out how highly addictive it is for language junkies.

But it can be an expensive business, scheduling countless lessons a month – especially if you learn several languages at once. Ever a good home economist, I’m always trying to justify my spending. So here is my reasoning on why iTalki is still an excellent use of my dosh.

Cheaper than travelling

Countless online articles expound the necessity of immersion for advanced fluency. However, ‘traditional’ immersion – travelling to hear and speak a language – can be costly. As a casual learner of Russian in the UK, I know that only too well. Flights and hotels are not cheap. Add to that the difficulties of getting visas and travel documents in many cases, and immersion abroad is simply off the cards for many.

iTalki offers immersion in short, intense chunks for a much smaller outlay. Russian teachers are available from $5 (about £3.60 at the time of writing) per hour upwards. You could have scores of lessons at that price before you hit the budget for a trip to Russia. Even at $20+, you’ll go a long way before it gets cheaper to travel abroad to learn and practise.

Immersion in an iTalki lesson is also very focussed, intense and directed. That contrasts with a wide variability of experience quality when travelling to learn languages. When travelling, you might go a whole day without managing to strike up much conversation beyond asking directions. On iTalki, you have up to an hour or more, exclusively for you to practise. That’s bumper bang for your buck.

Cheaper than competitors

Generally speaking, iTalki prices compare very favourably with other teacher directory / lesson sites. One of the other ‘biggies’, VerbLing, seems quite expensive by comparison. Likewise, when searching online for independent tutors, prices can be prohibitively high.

For mainstream languages like French and Spanish, the sheer number of tutors, and resulting competition, results in some very favourable prices for lessons. Additionally, most teachers offer a trial lesson for an extremely small sum. Under these conditions, students can more easily try multiple tutors to find a perfect match. Chopping and changing was never so easy!

iTalki’s tiering system of professional / community tutors makes for more affordable lessons, too. Good community tutors can be just as good as professional tutors, but often charge significantly less. Often the distinction is not one of teaching quality, but simply a case of hard qualifications. Some of my best iTalki tutors of all have been community tutors.

Community learning

Being part of iTalki is about more than just lessons. The creators have tried hard to create a dynamic community, as well as a market for teachers. There are many free, peer-to-peer features, which aim to get members helping each other. And there is nothing like helping others to boost your own motivation.

The question and answer forum is particularly busy, and somewhere you can also give a little back by addressing learner questions about your native language. The peer correction service can also be a real godsend, especially in lesser-taught languages.

What’s more, the site regularly hosts events that aim to egg students on. From February this year, for example, the iTalki Challenge will chivvy along the most dedicated amongst us, with leaderboards and prize badges awarded for the number of lessons taken. Some might criticise this as a cynical marketing move to increase lesson turnover, but the promise of public reward is surprisingly effective!

Turning the tables

As a language learner, you have your own unique insight into the learning process. That means that you, too, could help others by giving lessons in your native tongue, either as a community or professional tutor, depending on your background. As such, you can earn back iTalki dollars to keep a steady stream of lessons going. And of course, there’s always a chance that you’ll really enjoy it, and decide to turn it into an extra stream of income.

If you’re not quite ready for that step (and I’m not quite there yet, despite a professional teaching background!), then you can earn back in other ways. The site has a decent referral scheme, awarding you $10 for every friend you sign up for lessons. The friend also gets $10 credit, so it’s win-win. Here’s my link if you want that to start you off – and I’d be very grateful for your click! 😊

Peripheral benefits

As a fairly shy person by nature, another minor benefit of iTalki has occurred to me a lot recently: it is excellent practice at one-to-one conversation with new faces. Practising social niceties and the art of chat is a really useful side-effect of regular lessons on the platform.

Moreover, some of my long-term teachers have become good friends over the years. And if that isn’t a great peripheral plus-note, I don’t know what is.

Make the most of your iTalki dollars

Of course, it is vital to be prepared to make the most of your investment, too. Plan what you want to cover, perhaps using speaking bingo sheets. Make sure you write up your notes from the lesson. Transfer them to digital formats like Anki, where appropriate. And, most importantly, keep going, even when it seems difficult. Be honest with your tutors about the expected level of work, and they can adjust and tweak to suit you best.

iTalki can be a shot in the arm to your language learning, especially if you’ve been used to studying alone with your books. Those prices are deceptively cheap, given the return on your cash. Give it a go today.

Notebook for note-taking

Note-taking: boost your language learning with old-school style

Technology has transformed the day-to-day business of the language learner. Note-taking is now a matter of a few clicks and taps. Always on, vast storage, and the ability to index and edit – modern devices, apps and browser widgets take the hassle out of collating and reviewing vocabulary .

But there’s almost something too easy about turning to electronics every time. Try as I might, I can’t quite shake off my old-school habits of pen and paper. There’s something about physically writing down notes that helps my brain to process them. It gives them salience, lifting them from the mundaneness of tapping some lines into a phone or computer. Here are a few tips for boosting your own language learning process with a bit of old-fashioned writing.

The workhorse: Pukka Pads

You have to start somewhere, and usually, that’s with the roughest sketches and scribbles. I find it helpful, for instance, to make pre-lesson notes on things I want to talk about with my teachers.

For rough drafts and ideas, you can’t beat an A4 Pukka Pad. The 3-pack is particularly good value on Amazon.co.uk at the moment, and with 200 pages each, they should last a fair while.

When I’m preparing for a lesson or session, I’ll take a whole page of A4 to sketch out ideas and new vocab I want to practise. A4 is the perfect size to create speaking bingo sheets, too.

Embracing Pukka for note-taking doesn’t have to mean turning against technology, either. After my notes are done, I like to use a document scanner app to store them electronically. Scanner Pro for iOS is my favourite, and Adobe Scan is a good alternative for Android. This way, I also have access to my written notes any time, any place.

Old-school pride in your work

After the initial work, there is an important extra step: transferring to ‘best’. Admittedly, this is a hangover from my school days. Several of my teachers would give us kids a rough and a best exercise book for the school year. We’d do our note-taking and practice work in the former, then neatly write up our final work in the latter.

It might seem like meaningless escritorial vanity at first, but there’s a logic to this finickity madness. Writing up to best adds an element of selection and organisation that mimics the brain’s indexing of memories according to salience, or importance. It adds an extra stage of processing, giving weight to the bits we really value and want to keep.

The Monarch of note-taking: Moleskine

To boost that sense of salience, it’s a good idea to go all-out on your best notes. And there are few more appropriate vessels for these than a beautiful, classic Moleskine. They come in all shapes and sizes, but the slightly-larger-than-A5, standard Moleskine is my favourite. If, like me, you love your stationery, Moleskines are a real treat.

Premium-bound with an elasticated bookmark, the Moleskine notebook is a rewarding place to record your work. I like to organise mine by topic / language function pages. These range from individual language topics like ‘health’, ‘animals’ and so on, to pages for structures like ‘conversation fillers’ and ‘discussion / debate phrases’. If you want it to make it extra special, get yourself a nice fountain pen to fill it up.

Perfecting your process

So, in summary, this is our old-school, optimised note-taking process, with a bit of new-school thrown in:

  1. Pre-lesson and prep notes on a page of an A4 Pukka Pad
  2. Scan notes using a document scanner app like Scanner Pro
  3. Transferring notes and vocabulary to best in a beautiful Moleskine

It’s a simple approach, but it adds another useful level of cogitation and brain-processing to your language work. Keep that vocab churning – and enjoy that lovely, premium stationery while you’re at it!

We feel enthusiasm for chocolate, but it's not healthy to gorge on it!

Rationing enthusiasm for more effective language learning

Some things can be moreish. Chocolate, for example. You might think you can’t get enough of it. Your enthusiasm for the sweet stuff takes over, you race through your stash of secret supplies, and before you know it, you’re feeling bleugh. Those four Mars Bars and the family size Galaxy have done you no good.

Likewise, if you enjoy learning languages, extreme enthusiasm can be a hindrance. That sounds like a terrible thing to say – enthusiasm for learning is truly wonderful, of course. But, at the sharp end, it can be too much of a good thing.

When I’m on a learning kick, and the enthusiasm bug bites, I speed up. I want to devour words, rules, facts, figures.

And often, that means I rush ahead and skip the basics.

Dangerous enthusiasm

Now, I could pick any number of languages I’ve tried learning in the past to illustrate this. For example, the Icelandic language truly fascinates me. Historically a pretty conservative language, it’s as close to Old Norse as a modern foreign language gets. And as Norwegian learner too, there are tons of common points of interest between the two. It’s just incredibly interesting.

I spent a good year thrashing away at it some time ago. I did reasonably well, too, learning lots of grammar in particular (I am a total grammar boffin). However, I never really gained any colloquial fluency.

The reason for that is the chocolate problem. I found the language enthralling, and developed a real taste for it. But that meant I raced ahead, guzzling up the interesting stuff long before I should have. That’s a great recipe for learning without practical application.

I became the kind of linguist who could explain and conjugate complex verb paradigms in Icelandic, but couldn’t tell the time, count or say hello. Oops. Not so handy in Reykjavík.

DeFEating my nemesis

Because of this, Icelandic was always a bit of a ‘nemesis’ language for me. Every time, it would entice me a little too much, and I’d gorge on it to the point of saturation. Every time, it beat me, leaving me bursting with grammar, but with little practical application.

But I like a challenge, and if anything, Icelandic is the perfect vehicle to exercise a new, restrained enthusiasm. I picture myself down but not out, bellowing “you shall not beat me!” at it from the boxing ring floor. To that end, I’ve returned to the language recently, and thanks to a really good teacher on iTalki, am systematically filling in the gaps in the basics. We’re using a set of beginner’s resources that are available for free: Íslenska fyrir alla (Icelandic for everyone), and, for a change, I’m sticking to the plan.

Pig out – but not too often!

So, to return to chocolate (what a great idea), taking it bite by bite is advised. Little, but often. It doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes pig out – but don’t let it ruin your diet!

Learning multiple languages CAN be as simple as putting together coloured blocks!

Tackle multiple languages by blocking your time

I am a language hog. I’m eternally curious about them, and genuinely love studying them. So, I’m often actively learning multiple languages at the same time.

However, advice on learning multiple languages usually suggests plenty of caution and good planning. Now, you can be over-cautious; some suggest avoiding languages that are quite closely related, such as Norwegian and Icelandic, or Polish and Russian. However, I find that sometimes, this can actually help.

But overstretching yourself – however fun the activity – is a recipe for burnout. And, I’ve found, successful study sessions in a foreign language require a bit of conscientious preparation. You have to get in the mindspace for that language. At the very least, you need to (re-)activate your existing knowledge and plan to have something to say.

Because of that, few students will learn effectively by cramming three or more different languages into back-to-back study blocks on the same day.

Multiple languages pile-up

The problem was this: when I first started taking online lessons on iTalki, I had a tendency to spot any free time in my diary and fill it up. A sucker for punishment, you might think; rather, kid-in-a-sweetshop syndrome! So many languages, so little time…

For all busy people, it’s very tempting to do this. A free afternoon on Saturday? Squeeze in your German and Spanish. Only have one free evening in the week? Schedule three different language classes in it to make sure you’re getting your practice.

Nonetheless, this was a disaster for me. The result was always the same – I’d do well in the first class, then struggle to switch mindset for the following ones. I noticed the problem even when I left slightly longer, like a single day, between lessons. And, frankly, it’s a waste of the money to spend money on lessons and not be able to do the best you can in them.

Language blocks

However much I wanted to chop and change, it was necessary to create some separation. This way, at the very least, I could give each language a fair allocation of my time and energy. To this end, I’ve used trial and error to find an approach that works. And the trick, I’ve found, is spacing different languages into learning blocks of a few days.

What I do now is to carve my time into blocks of learning. Each one leads up to the big lesson ‘event’, where I can practise what I’ve learnt. Importantly, as much as possible, I keep each different language lesson separated by at least a couple of days on my calendar. In effect, you are spending your block working up to the pinnacle, which is the face-to-face lesson.

Short, sweet and focussed

It’s probably best not to make the blocks too long; two to four days working on a language is probably optimal before you cycle to the next one. You don’t want any one language to have too much downtime. But for those few days, ensure that your all your active learning is focussed on the single language.

The exception to the rule is with your languages in maintenance mode. These require less fresh learning and intensive vocab prep. For example, German and Spanish are my degree languages, and my strongest; therefore, I’ll pop a Spanish or German class on the same day as an Icelandic or Norwegian one – but never an Icelandic and Norwegian one on the same day.

Finally, it’s important to ‘sign off’ properly after you finish a block. For instance, I write up my lesson notes, add new vocab to Anki and spend some time putting any new vocabulary into example sentences. Tying it all off nicely after the big event is as important as preparing for it.

Why limit yourself?

If languages are your joy and passion, then why limit yourself? It’s true that you may well learn more quickly if you concentrate on a single one. But if you are a language guzzler, like me, then timing tricks like these will help keep you satiated, while still squeezing the most from your lessons.

Real-life language can be unpredictable, like this tangle of colourful liquorice sweeties!

Preparing for the unpredictable – developing flexible language thinking

We’ve all been there. You’ve learnt the tenses. Have the vocab down pat. You have a head full of model questions and answers. You are totally ready for to be unleashed onto the target language streets. But – agh – what was that answer that came back at you? What was that word again, and why can’t you remember it now? And why is this so much harder than when you were learning it? Conversation so often doesn’t stick to the script, and we can be totally thrown by the responses to your perfectly practised communication attempts. Real life is just so darn unpredictable!

Well, rest assured that it isn’t just you. There is a psychological phenomenon dubbed ‘context reinstatement’ that explains just what on Earth is going on. It’s a fancy name for something many of us intuitively know anyway – that being perfect in a learn-and-drill situation does not prepare you for the unpredictability of real life.

Underwater understanding

Classic memory research by Godden and Baddeley shows how we find retrieval easier when the context is the same as the original learning environment. The psychologist duo split their subjects into two groups. One group learnt a list of 40 words underwater, and the other group learnt them on the beach. Then, they tested each participant’s recall of the words in either the same, or the alternative environment.

The result? On average, subjects remembered 40% more when tested in the same environment that learning took place in.

The lesson from this is not – disappointingly – that we should all buy scuba gear and go and learn languages in the water. Rather, we can assume that vocabulary and structures will be easier to recall in a classroom if they were first learnt in a classroom. The familiar surroundings contain lots of cues, networked to those original memories, that help them bubble up to the surface. This explains why you may perform brilliantly in a vocab test in class, but struggle to find a word in a shop or restaurant in your target language country.

Context – a blessing and a curse

Superficially, the effect of context on recall can sometimes be a useful tool. If you want to improve recall, then you can attempt to recreate the environment where you first learnt the material. Taking a French/German/Spanish exam? Then take in some familiar objects, like your favourite pencil case or pen. Maybe sit in the same desk for class tests, or even wear the same clothes. There really is some psycho-science behind having ‘lucky’ clothes in this case!

The trouble with extending these techniques is the impracticality, or often, sheer impossibility of them in real life. In reality, we have very little control over scenarios where we want to speak a foreign language! Language happens anywhere and everywhere – by its nature, it is unpredictable.

Training for the unpredictable

So, how can you prepare yourself for, literally, anything that could happen in a target language situation? First off, nobody will be able to do that. That is half the fun and excitement of speaking foreign languages – it’s a rollercoaster ride of social surprises. But you can increase your chances of coping well with that. The trick is to promote flexible, rather than fixed thinking in your learning routines.

Vary your study settings

There is a common study tip based on busting the context-dependency of Godden and Baddeley’s experiment. It is, quite simply, to vary the environment that you learn in. In theory, this prevents specific language memories from becoming too attached to elements that won’t be present in the field.

You can extend this idea of  ‘environment’ to the whole ecosystem you use to learn – the apps, websites and materials that you form your learning materials. Find yourself exclusively using Duolingo to practise languages? Then give Anki a try, and build some custom vocabulary lists. Only using fixed listening material from language courses? Then maybe it’s time to try some podcasts. Take the predictability out of your learning, and you may increase your ability to cope with it in the real world.

Fluid notes

It’s also worth addressing how you keep your phrase lists, crib notes and vocab records, too. A rigid, fixed, linear structure to memorising dialogues, for example, leaves little room for digression in actual conversations. A static list of ten words that you learn in order will, likewise, not really promote flexible use in the day-to-day.

Instead, think about creating frameworks for your vocabulary instead. Rather than complete sentences, learn structures that you can fit many different words into, depending on the situation. I should have…I’ve already … and so on – frames you can grab and fill in your head on the go.

Recycling material in different ways is key here, too. Maybe learning discrete lists of ten words is an effective memorisation technique for you. Stick with that if so, but introduce some variety to the way you practise them. Run through the words in a different order – maybe using a flashcard app like Anki – and challenge yourself to make different, even whacky, sentences with them each time you revise. Mix it up – make sure that no learning session is the same.

Speaking is supreme

Finally, books and static materials will never suffice for training for the unpredictable. Even the immersive, language-in-situ nature of podcasts won’t mimic the two-way dynamic of real-life conversation.

For that end, the old adage always applies: speaking is supreme in language learning. I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of iTalki for face-to-face language practise. I’ve been finding lots of extra time for regular Skype lessons, simply to chat with a real person. It can be hard, and it’s natural to feel an aversion to difficult things and hide from them. But if you stick at it, you’ll reap the confidence rewards of coping better and better with natural language.

Embrace the unpredictable

Human beings are creatures of habit, and love routine. That’s why these techniques might sometimes feel so hard to adopt, even though they seem like common sense. It can be disconcerting to mix up your learning approaches ceaselessly, or throw yourself into environments where you are tested on the spot. But in the long run, you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace change and variety, and become a more dynamic linguist for it!

Poppy Field - it's hard to find the confidence to stand out in a field full of blossoming blooms!

Am I Good Enough? Maintaining confidence in an Internet age 👊🏻

Confidence is key to speaking and using languages. But in an age of Internet superheroes to measure up to, it can be hard to keep it.

The Internet has been a godsend for language learners. Not only are millions of resources within easy reach, but there is community. Suddenly, the countless others who share the passion are visible. If you grew up thinking you wondering if there was anyone like you, then the Internet finally answered that question. The downside: measuring yourself up against your fellow linguists can affect your confidence. We go from being special and unique to just one of many, and that, frankly, can feel rubbish.

How many times have you thought: wow, s/he’s brilliant – no way am I that good!

Everyday experts

We live in an age of everyday experts. People with skills can now share those skills with anyone through a blog or a website. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is a marvellous thing. Everybody can help everybody else, and all you need to have a voice, and reach out, is an Internet connection.

However, it is easy to forget that there’s an element of the marketplace operating on the web: there is competition. In the tussle win clicks, likes, and kudos, individuals feel compelled to go bigger, bolder, brighter. Consequently, writers amplify positive claims and overstate promises of greatness.

The result? We have an online language community fixated on notions of ‘fast fluency’, and language heroes with almost superhuman abilities to absorb new tongues. The issue is not just with language learning; quiet confidence-knocking goes on wherever the Internet brings people together around a set of skills. Online trainer Brad Hussey lays it bare for web creatives in this passionate post.

Fortunately, there has been some honest push-back against the fluency myth recently, such as in this helpful article by Alex Rawlings. (I see the irony of linking to an article by a polyglot hero in an article re-humanising Internet heroes!) But it’s still too easy to feel in the shadow of others in a very noisy online world.

Our idealised selves

To understand how this positive feedback loop comes about, step back and think of online personalities not as actual people, but as constructs of people. The Facebook or Twitter profile is not a true and faithful copy of the person in cyberspace. Instead, it is a construct of an identity in the 2D space of the Internet.

Naturally, those identities are overwhelmingly positive ones; we build them from what we like best about ourselves. Twitter and Facebook profiles are showcases for selves, idealised projections. As such, the Internet is one vast exercise in impression management. Erving Goffman – the sociologist who originally conceptualised this notion – would, no doubt, have had a field day with social media.

But the crux of this is simple: take everything you read online with a little pinch of salt.

Am I good enough? Finding confidence

Behind these idealised profiles are ordinary, everyday people – just like you. They share the same basic needs, desires and anxieties. You are as capable of their feats as they are of your perceived failures – only you cannot see the failures, as these rarely make it onto social media.

That’s why it’s important to start talking about the frustrations and failures in language learning just as much as the wild successes. Discussion needs to paint a realistic, rather than a fantastical, picture of what the linguaphile journey is like. It’s hugely rewarding, amazing fun and exhilarating – but it’s not perfect. What journey is? And would a perfect journey be as much fun?

So, care for your confidence. Learn to chill with your languages. But believe it: you are good enough.